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Dave Brailsford, the mind behind the Team Sky machine, already knows who will be Chris Froome’s most dangerous opponent in 2014. It’s not Nairo Quintana (Movistar) or Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank); it’s Vincenzo Nibali of the powerful Astana team.
Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Brailsford said the soon-to-be 29-year-old is the biggest threat on the horizon going into the 2014 season.
“Nibali is our principal rival,” Brailsford told La Gazzetta. “I have no doubt after looking at the Tour route for next year that Nibali is the most complete of Chris’s rivals.”
Nibali was the lone rider who beat Froome one-on-one, when he knocked him back en route to victory in the weather-marred Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
As Froome marched toward Tour victory, Nibali set his sights on the Giro d’Italia, winning with relative ease before returning to ride to second at the Vuelta a España behind Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard).
Astana brass have already confirmed that Nibali will turn his attention to the Tour for 2014, putting Froome and Nibali on a crash course heading toward next July.
Brailsford admitted that Nibali has the skillset and the team backing to give Froome and Sky a run for their money as the British outfit aims for a third consecutive yellow jersey.
“What I like about Vincenzo is that he’s a real cyclist. He’s a fighter, aggressive, and never gives up,” Brailsford said. “He can transform a stage, he’s creative and brave. He always gives 100 percent. His talent is obvious and he races in a modern way.”
Nibali still has yet to confirm whether he will defend his Giro title, but if he’s serious about taking on Froome and the Tour, it’s likely he will not race in Italy in May, and instead put all of his eggs in the Tour basket.
In 2012, Nibali was the lone rider who could stay close to eventual winner Bradley Wiggins and Froome, en route to finishing a career-best third.
Next year’s Tour route favors Nibali just as much Froome, with five summit finales, one long time trial on the penultimate stage, and a loaded first half with cobblestones, narrow roads, and tricky terrain.
“On the cobbles, he’s a better rider than Froome,” Brailsford admitted. “I’ve seen how good he is on the gravel roads of the Giro and how good he is descending in the wet.”
Nibali also is the best time trialist among the would-be challengers for Froome. But Brailsford said it would be a mistake to try to wait until the final time trial in Bergerac to try to win.
“I always believed that Chris is a much better climber than time trialist, so he has to try to take time in the mountains, without waiting for the time trial,” Brailsford said.
“There are five mountaintop finishes. The tactics will change completely. You cannot wait too much. You have to take risks.”